Ten executives meet in secret to sell off their company – one by one they are murdered, leaving the profits to be split by fewer and fewer shareholders. COFFEE, KILL BOSS, a sort of TEN LITTLE INDIANS meets WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S meets WALL STREET that I first profiled here, has finally made it to VOD after a triumphant run on the festival circuit. Starring a cornucopia of recognizable actors – Eddie Jemison (Oceans 11-13), Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, The Descendants), Chris Wylde (who once had his own show on Comedy Central), Peter Breitmeyer (The Middle, Fargo), Noureen DeWulf (Anger Management, Outsourced) Jack Wallace (Boogie Nights) and the one and only Richard Riehle, for Office Space fans know as the inventor of the ‘Jump to Conclusions’ Mat – COFFEE, KILL BOSS is packed with characters (and laughs). With a style that plays like Hitchcock through the lens of Mel Brooks, the film mixes broad comedy and 50’s era thrillers to find a tone that is unique and never lets the audience grow complacent.
With the release of the film, I took the opportunity to reach out to Richard Riehle, who plays board member Vincent Brutsi, to talk about his long career as a ‘character actor.’ If you look Riehle on IMDB you find 330+ credits, with films as varied as Edward Zwick’s GLORY and the classic tale of magical dogs saving Christmas THE SEARCH FOR SANTA PAWS. Riehle is the classic actor that most people don’t recognize by name, and yet everyone knows on screen. Hollywood is full of actors, but few of them work as much as Riehle (or get to play as many awesome roles).
Riehle: I guess I’ve always been a character actor. I’ve been playing the older, more authoritarian roles from the beginning, and finally started aging into them, first in theater, which I did for about 20 years around the country, and then about 10 years in New York. By then I could “pass” on the closer scrutiny of a TV or movie screen.
There was a moment fairly early in my career when Terence Kilburn, the Artistic Director of The Meadowbrook Theater in Michigan, was giving notes after a dress rehearsal of “Witness for the Prosecution.” I was playing the bailiff and the costume department had me in a sharp navy blue suit, and hair had given me a slick cut. He said “You know, looking like you do now, if you lost 30 pounds, you could almost be a leading man; of course I’d never hire you as one. Accept the fact that you’re a character man.”
BEARS: You get to do so many projects, more than most people in the business can even imagine. How do you prepare for each new one? Is there a routine or approach you take?
Riehle: When I’m approached about auditioning for a film, the first criteria is always the script. If it’s a good story, well told, the next aspect is the character, if he’s integral to the plot, or at least gives it a push in one direction or another; and then how sharply the character is delineated, and how he relates to the other characters. He doesn’t have to be a hero, bad guys are often more fun; and he doesn’t have to have a lot of dialogue, in EXECUTIVE DECISION [starring Kurt Russell], I talked my way out of playing one of the characters in the war room, and asked to audition for the Air Marshal who has one line so I could be in on the action. As they always remind you in improve it’s important to say “yes,” and I am a big proponent of that. I often find that I talk myself into wanting to do a project while I’m working on it, to see if I’m interested in auditioning for it.
Every character has differences and similarities. The similarities begin with the fact that you are going to play that role, and so it will be your body and your voice with variations that you will develop for the portrayal. The differences come from the specific answers to the questions of who you are, what you want, what you’re willing to do to get it, when this is taking place, where, your place in society, etc. One of my first professional acting jobs was in a true repertory company where we did a different play every afternoon and evening. Going in, I thought, this is impossible, I’ll constantly get mixed up or lost; but I soon discovered if I had done the work, it wasn’t a problem.
BEARS: You’ve played Santa Claus at least 3 times. What can you tell us about the jolly old elf? Do you ever compare your different Santa Clauses? Is Santa essentially the same to all people and in all films or did you do something different for each?
Riehle: I think I’ve actually done 10 or so Santas. The most traditional one was in THE SEARCH FOR SANTA PAWS, where Santa feels a lack of Christmas Spirit and leaves the North Pole just before Christmas to try to determine what the problem is. Unfortunately he gets knocked down by a cab and forgets who he is and that he needs to get back to the North Pole for his big night’s work. Fortunately his number one elf and a rascally puppy team up to help him find his way back and into the homes of all the good little boys and girls. Every choice was to make Santa true to his nature, even when he couldn’t remember what it was. So he couldn’t help but be jolly and kind and considerate and good to children. To that end I wasn’t allowed to be seen except in complete Santa makeup and costume lest one of the kids in the cast who was still a believer discover the jolly old elf to be a myth. We did a similar thing when I played Santa on GROUNDED FOR LIFE, although it was a more complicated caper: Walt plays Santa every Christmas for his grandkids but this year his son Sean wants to play Santa. Sean dresses up and creates a dueling Santas scenario in front of the youngest boy who still believes in Santa. We didn’t want to be the ones to dissuade him.
In THE HEBREW HAMMER, I was the real Santa, assassinated by his son who wants to take over the business. In a recreation of the scene from JERRY MCGUIRE, I played the real Santa who was fired and using the same dialogue try to get the elves to come with me. In OUR FIRST CHRISTMAS, a Lifetime movie, no one believes I’m the real Santa but I keep appearing to help a newly-melded family celebrate their first Christmas together despite various obstacles. In THE THREE DOGATEERS SAVE CHRISTMAS, I’m a down on his luck department store Santa who helps three little yappy dogs retrieve all the Christmas goodies stolen from their house, when their master and mistress are at work, and with a wink and a nod, I fly off in my battered red Mustang. The most recent Santa I did was for the final season of Two and a Half Men’s Christmas episode, where I’m hired to play Santa for their adopted son, but it’s taking so long for them to put together his present that I get frisky with Alan’s mother and have coronary interruptus, but make arrangements to get together for New Years. Not the real Santa that time.
BEARS: You’ve done 3 different Star Trek series (Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise). Any memories you can share from those experiences?
Riehle: The first T.V. series I did was as Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller, with Charlie Schlatter as Ferris, Amy Dolenz as his girl friend, and Jennifer Aniston as his sister. We shot on the Paramount Lot, right next to one of the Next Generation sound stages. I got to know some of the cast and crew. I had previously worked with Johnathon Frakes in Anna Christie at the Seattle Rep. When NBC cancelled Ferris Bueller, I got an audition for Next Generation, and I was cast as Batai. I was told I would have to shave so they could make a facial mold – not a problem as I would often change my look show to show when doing theater. It was a wonderful experience, all my scenes were with Patrick [Stewart], his son played his real son, and fans always rank that episode, The Inner Light among the top five. [Inner Light synopsis: Picard awakes to find himself living in a small village where he is a well-known member of the community who is suffering from a delusion of being a starship captain.] While I was shooting it, I auditioned for FREE WILLY sans mustache, and got cast. 13 weeks later when we had completed principal photography in Mexico Washington and Oregon, I returned to LA and began auditioning, but without the success I had previously enjoyed. My agents called around to see what the problem was and were told: no, we love Richard, we just don’t know how to cast him without a mustache. I grew it back, and have worn it ever since.
In the Voyager world, I was part of the Irish holodeck. We had a great time. Always some silliness involved. The Pig Farmer from WAKING NED DEVINE was brought in to be Janeway’s love interest and we were supporting local (Kelly green) color. I had a fun scene with 7 of 9, we had a live cow in a church set, a number of outdoor locations, and were told we would be a regular storyline the next season. But they went another way as they say.
In Enterprise I got to work with one of the first people I met when I got to LA, Scott Bakula. I did a couple of Quantum Leaps with him. It was also great to work on an iconic story like The Augments and be part of its genesis. I feel very privileged to have been part of the Star Trek saga.
BEARS: For many people, especially in Austin the spiritual home of OFFICE SPACE, you’ll always be the inventor of the Jump to Conclusions Mat. What can you tell us about Tom Smykoski?
Riehle: I first got to know Austin when I played the Whiskey Judge in Bill Witleff’s series “Ned Blessing.” We shot a lot of it on Willie Nelson’s ranch, in the Old West town he had built there and the surrounding countryside. We had a big barbecue with the casts and crews of 3 other projects that were shooting there at the time and everyone was ready to relocate to Austin when we got picked up. They had us staying at the Sheraton, so we were right in the middle of that year’s SXSW Music Festival which was a blast. I was back briefly for part of the “Gambler V” shoot, so when I got cast in OFFICE SPACE, I was really looking forward to spending some more time in Austin.
Mike Judge spent a good deal of time casting the roles. I think I was in 3 times. But once he decided he called to say he wanted people that would enjoy spending 29 days in Austin together, that we’d work hard but he’d show us a good time. And he certainly did. He couldn’t have been a better host. He performed his acting turn first, showing by example the tone and style he was looking for.
The key to Tom, I think, is the suicide attempt aborted by his wife’s early arrival, and how his trying to pretend it wasn’t happening almost precipitates his accidental death, which ends up providing him with the funds to develop his Jump to Conclusions Mat. There is a scene that got cut where he has completed his self fulfilling prophecy and is down-sized. He is trying to sell Ron Livingston’s character Amway as security is dragging him out of the building, which was sort of the final degradation leading up to his attempt to end his life.
Just as a sidebar, it’s interesting how often I am mistaken for Milton. I was at a cigar bar with a friend who was a member, and we ran into 3 young women as we were leaving who said: oh, you were in Office Space, could we have your autograph? And could you write your line about the stapler? To which I replied: I really was in Office Space, but you’re mistaking me for Stephen Root who played Milton. But if you still want my autograph. I’ll be happy to give it to you. They: yes, we’d love your autograph…..and could you please write your line about the stapler? Me: tell me the line and I’ll write it down.
BEARS: How did the script for COFFEE, KILL BOSS come to you and what excited you about it?
Riehle: I was sent the script through my agent, read it and laughed out loud many times. I was happy to get an audition and eagerly went in. Unfortunately, I was sporting a Santa-ish beard from a project where the director wanted the department store Santa to have a Kris Kringle type beard under the bigger Santa one when he reveals himself to the woman who accidentally received his Naughty or Nice book. A friend was directing and I was pencilled in and seeing if I could grow what he needed. On top of that, the character was written as an Italian mobster type. But I went in and gave it my best, and I guess scared Angela [Gollan, co-producer] who was doing the readings in the process. The other movie didn’t happen, but Nathan [Marshall, director] suggested I keep the beard to fit in with Jack and Cameron as the three old guys who started the company. And I guess I was imposing enough as my own Irish self.
BEARS: This is actually a film full of great character actors. Did you all talk about that? Did you all work with Nathan to really devise the differences between the strong personalities? What did he say about your place in this ensemble?
Riehle: There certainly are a crew of us, and what a treat that was. There are not many films where we make up a plurality. Lots of great war stories between set ups, and at the same time, people who know their jobs. And funny. Eddie and Peter and Jack and Cameron and Chris and, of course, Robert. And the women were definitely no slouches either, although as gorgeous as they all are, it’s hard to describe them as character ladies. But every role is in fact a character role, and I think it helps to look at it that way.
BEARS: Given your background in workplace-oriented films, was filming in that empty office building for COFFEE, KILL BOSS kind of creepy? [The film takes place on the weekend hours in an otherwise empty skyscraper.]
Riehl: COFFEE KILL BOSS wasn’t exactly an empty office building. It was used as a showroom for the windows, doors, etc which they were continually sorting and shipping below us. [In comparison] the OFFICE SPACE office building was an empty building. And the offices of the firm Ally McBeal gets fired from to retain the rain man who is sexually harassing her in the pilot was the empty floor in a downtown LA office building that the previous tenants had stripped and fled from in the dead of night. Our COFFEE KILL BOSS set seemed much more cosy and friendly.
BEARS: Whats the most bizarre role you’ve ever played and why?
Riehle: Given the many really crazy roles I did in years of theater; new plays, experimental, absurdist, etc., it’s usually not the role per se that is bizarre, but the way in which it is shot or what is going on around you. In WELCOME TO THE FUTURE I played the essence of a person who had died, but was supposed to be maintained in perpetuity by this company that had screwed up and allowed them to start repeating, so my face was essentially shot motion capture and later placed inside a box and a robot which goes beserk when they try to shut it down. As Pliers in “Wing Commander IV,” all the sets were half built and half green screen, but what was strange was that each scene had two opposite endings that had to be shot, and Pliers was an icon, so I spent a couple of hours one day just reading a list of possible outcomes depending on what choices the player made. I never saw any of my work in that one as I couldn’t get past the first battle, but I heard that players who had successfully navigated to the end game, enjoyed replaying it and purposefully killing off the heroes in a variety of ways.
I recently did a movie called BREAKING LEGS about a high school dance squad, playing the principal. The convocation, and homecoming half-time events had already been shot, and I was shooting my part by myself framed in such a way that they could fit me in. What bewildered me a little was that they were shooting on film, not digitally. And I guess it’s not that bizarre, but shooting the finale of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, after the ape had fallen from the ride, there was this beautiful 20-foot-puppet on the ground to play off of with 5 or 6 controllers and one guy who crawled inside and pushed the monkey’s chest up when he took his first few breaths. When they called cut, another 5 or 6 handlers rushed out and combed the automaton’s hair and applied vaseline to its rubber parts. And then there was the scene in WATER WALK, where we shot a four-hander around a table in a working bar in the middle of an Octoberfest celebration or another bar scene in JOYRIDE where it was thought a way to keep the extras on board and happy was to serve them real beer.
BEARS: Are there any characters or character types that you haven’t gotten to play yet but want to?
Riehle: I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been extremely lucky. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do the numbers and variety of roles I have. It would be nice to get the girl, but at my age, if I don’t have her already, that’s not very likely. I’ve gotten to work with some wonderful actors and directors on all sorts of interesting projects. It’s fun to do action, especially while I can still move freely without too much pain. It’s fun to work on projects that take place out of doors, on location in general is exciting. But having the controlled environment of a sound stage can be wonderful. I love working with young writers and directors, doing their passion projects. Often you get to do roles you wouldn’t ordinarily get to. And I love to work with the old pros who know exactly what they want. I learn so much from both. But actually, the part I haven’t done that I’d like to do is the next one.
COFFEE, KILL BOSS is available now from Devolver Digital, for all the ways you can watch, see their website (http://www.devolverdigital.com/films/view/coffee-kill-boss). Riehle has about 10 films listed in pre to post-production right now including playing George Westinghouse in Michael Anton’s TESLA, the IFC Midnight acquired DEMENTIA something called HELEN KELLER VS. NIGHTWOLVES.